Sugar-free candies clean out your digestive system better than a giant pipe-cleaner. Not to put too fine a point on it, they make you poop. How do these ultra-laxatives work, and why are they still on the market?

Lycasin, Maltitol, and Gummy Bears

Reviewers on Amazon made Haribo Sugar Free Gummy Bears famous when they gave reviews testifying that the bears went into their body and out the other end at a break-neck run, taking everything else in their digestive system with them. The unhappy commenters mentioned stomach rumbles, ear-splittingly loud flatulence, and diarrhea. This is not confined to gummy bears. Any food loaded up with a low-calorie sugar called Lycasin will do the same.

Lycasin is a trade name, not a scientific name. The calorie free sweetener in the fake sugar is maltitol. Maltitol is a sugar alcohol, like most other fake sugars. Derived from plants, sugar alcohols have their carbohydrates altered in a lab. They become difficult to digest. The oral bacteria in the mouth are completely unable to digest them, which means they do not contribute in any way to tooth decay. In the stomach, they can be partially digested, but they are digested over a long period of time. An extended digestion period keeps them from dramatically and suddenly elevating blood sugar, making them safer for diabetics. They even might help keep people’s insides healthy. On the Cargill foods index, they are listed as one of the foods that can promote the health of the digestive system by nourishing gut bacteria.

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Sugar alcohols are very popular because they are nearly as sweet as sugar, and react like sugar in nearly every way. They come in a white powder. They melt in water. They can be cooked. The only thing they don’t do is brown the way sugar does, so you’ll rarely see them in fried sugary items like cobblers or turnovers.

The Downside of Skinny

Not all of the sugars are digested. The ones that remain on the outside of the inside of the body (not transported across the stomach or intestinal lining), promote a little thing called osmosis. Osmosis is the tendency of molecules to move across a membrane. Generally solvents – in this case water – move across a membrane to an area with a high concentration of solutes – in this case undigested sugars. In other words, having these sugars in your gut will cause a massive amount of water to dump itself into your stomach and intestines.

When the body needs to clean out the digestive system in a hurry, it pours water into the digestive system. The watery material makes a run for the colon, and from there out of the body. And that, boys and girls, is how diarrhea is made. Having too much undigested sugar will cause diarrhea via osmosis. The flatulence is often the result of the stool making its way through your system and pushing everything in its path ahead of it.

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Diarrhea isn’t life-threatening, provided it’s not prolonged and the person experiencing it has plenty of water to re-hydrate themselves. That being said, it’s not healthy and it’s really unpleasant. How did this product get on the market if it’s causing people to explode, anus-first, like sea cucumbers?

The main problem seems to be that, when they pick up a product that’s sugar free, most people think, “Oh great, I can eat more,” when what they need to be thinking is, “I have to eat less.” About 25 grams of maltitol is a laxative for children. Forty grams is a laxative for adults. So think of fifteen gummy bears as a decent dose. Few people restrict themselves to fifteen gummy bears, especially if they get a five pound bag. It’s just a matter of a few bites, and then they get their insides relocated.

Image: Tobik via Shutterstock

[Via What Are Sugar Alcohols, Cargill Foods, Sorbitol as a Sweetener, Doctor Weighs In on Gummy Bear Cleanse.]